Kate Douglas, distiller at O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co got her introduction to distilling when started as an intern at Old Elk Distillery. With her degree in Fermentation Scient and Technology from Colorado State University, she gets to distill, blend, promote and drive the product with the O’Shaughnessy team in Minneapolis, including the Keeper’s Heart Irish-American whiskey. Our favorite quote: “Women not only can do it, we are doing it.”
BW: How did you end up working in the industry?
KO: It all came from a love of science and flavor. I got my bachelor’s in Fermentation Science and Technology from Colorado State University. I wasn’t sure where my career would lead with options in beer, wine, cheese, or chocolate, but I’m glad I landed in whiskey!! It was a very serendipitous beginning with Old Elk starting up right as I was graduating with my degree, so I started as an intern and fell in love with the process.
BW: When did you discover you wanted to work in the whiskey industry?
KO: I had enjoyed drinking whiskey, but didn’t originally think of it as a career option. It started with an opportunity to actually use my degree in the real world, but I knew I wanted to stay when I realized that whiskey truly blends science and art together with a healthy dose of barrel magic. The way flavors develop from the raw ingredients through the fermentation, distillation, and maturation processes keeps me coming back for more.
BW: What was something surprising you learned in your early days at Old Elk?
KO: As distillers, you taste as you go, but not in the way most people think. People always think, “Oh, you get paid to drink, I wish I got to drink whiskey for work”. Being a distiller means trying the whiskey before it’s mature and it tastes nothing like the final product. It also means that you can be doing it early in the morning. When I first started, I participated in some training that involved smelling and tasting samples that were spiked with “off notes”. Some of them were horrendous! Our palates are more sensitive than any instrument, and that means relying on smelling and tasting the whiskey as it comes off the still. It’s also less about liking the flavor of the product and more so of identifying flavors and off notes.
BW: How do you use your background in chemistry and food science? How did your science and food safety background prepare you to become a distiller and blender?
KO: There is so much science that goes into whiskey! The cool part about my degree was that I was learning the intricacies of the brewing process, which is the first step to making whiskey. The breakdown of starch into simple sugars, the conversion of those sugars into alcohol, congeners, and CO2. Then there is the chemistry of isolating the alcohol and yummy congeners through distillation. I took organic chemistry, so I knew the laboratory practice, but not the art of making a good hearts cut. My favorite part about whiskey is actually the part that I didn’t learn at all in school, and that’s how the whiskey interacts with the wood and evolves over time. The chemistry behind it is interesting, but tasting the changes over the years is just the coolest thing.
BW: After working in the industry for this length of time what are some of the changes you’ve seen?
KO: There is a lot more research and innovation now compared to when I first got into the industry. I think that whiskey had gotten stuck in a little bit of a rut with “we do it like this because it’s always been done that way.” Now there are more brands blending different styles of whiskey, like our Keeper’s Heart where we are blending Irish and American whiskies together. I also think that brands are paying more attention to how whiskey is being enjoyed. One aspect Brian wanted with Keeper’s Heart Irish+American was the ability to be versatile and stand up in a cocktail. Irish whiskey can often get lost when mixed, so the addition of the Rye gives it a nice backbone, perfect for cocktails. We also cater to the whiskey enthusiasts that want more something at a higher proof or with a special finish, so offering Keeper’s Irish+American at 110 proof and cask finishes gives consumers those options.
BW: What does your day-to-day life in the distillery look like? What would surprise us about how you spend your day?
KO: It honestly depends on the day. I work 12-hour shifts and am in the brewhouse, stillhouse, or all over. Brewhouse shifts include milling grain, managing brews, pitching yeast, and monitoring fermentations. Stillhouse shifts include running the continuous still and the triple pot stills, proofing down new make, coopering barrels, and filling them up. I can also be found entering data, running reports, pulling barrel samples, blending, filling cask finishing barrels, or leading tastings. My schedule rotates so I am either working day shifts or overnight shifts, but the way Brian has it set up, I have A LOT of time off which helps with a good work/life balance. I also get to travel the country for work to talk about whiskey, which I never thought would be possible when I got into the industry.
BW: What’s one thing you wish people understood better about your role or the initiatives you’re working on?
KO: Blending is truly an art form. When I blend batches of barrels, I taste each one and make notes on the flavor, mouthfeel, finish, before trying a micro-blend. That way, if something tastes off, I have an idea of what barrels to replace based on it’s flavor profile. You might try to blend based on having a batch of barrels that are all really good, but they might not complement each other in a way that produced a good blend or matches the profile you are looking for. At O’Shaughnessy, I got to sit down with Brian Nation and David Perkins to work on the Irish+Bourbon blend. Finding the right bourbon that complements the Irish whiskey that we use took time, then finding the proper ratio took even more time. Blending is not as simple as putting barrels together, it takes a human palate and trial and error to get it just right.
BW: What’s something in your role and/or company that inspires you or gets you going in the morning?
KO: The innovation at O’Shaughnessy Distilling Co is amazing. Getting to make a 100% Rye triple pot distilled whiskey is something that has never really been done, and we are doing it. Getting to work with Brian and David to blend Irish whiskies with Bourbon was an incredible experience. In our single barrel program, we finish Keeper’s Heart in barrels like beer stout, maple syrup, used rye, new oak, cabernet, and sauternes to name a few. Seeing their development over time and how we can manipulate the flavor of the whiskey after the distillation and initial maturation process is really exciting for me. There is a lot going on that makes me excited to come to work.
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to become distillers or blenders?
KO: Women not only can do it, we are doing it. It’s so refreshing to see more and more women in the spotlight as Master Distillers and Master Blenders. Women tend to have a better palate, which means picking up more nuances in whiskey, aged and unaged. This puts us in a really good spot for being in both positions. There is a place for you and don’t let someone tell you there isn’t.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Minneapolis:
KO: The view from the whiskey lounge at O’Shaughnessy is honestly hard to beat. I’d say sitting in the lounge with a small group of friends, enjoying an old fashioned and a scotch egg or drunken bruschetta, everyone laughing and having a good time. All this with the three huge pot stills as a backdrop is pretty perfect.